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COVID truth and reconciliation

We must learn the lessons of our pandemic response

A lot changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people died. Tens of thousands of businesses were permanently closed. Economies were rocked. Irreversible disruption affected the schooling of kids across the world. But it’s good to know that one thing stayed the same: as a society, we learned bugger all.

Emily Oster, writing for The Atlantic, argues that we need a COVID amnesty. “Dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop,” she writes, “Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.” 

I’m sure Oster is well-intentioned. But we can’t have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission without the “truth” part. She does say that we have to learn from our experiences. But she does not seem to grasp that people live in different epistemic worlds. Some people in Britain and America think their governments sat around twiddling their thumbs while innocents were mown down by the million. Some people think they were confined to their bedrooms because of a bad cold.

We have to know the truth — and not just so we can get along with one another, which is perhaps a futile dream at the best of times, but because we could and, ultimately, will face pandemics again. We need to know what will work and what will not. Here, then, are five questions (with some undeniably partial comments): by no means comprehensive but a decent start.

Did the virus come from a wet market or a lab? How pandemics begin seems like the most important question of all. Whether you’re a COVID hawk or a COVID dove, I think we can all agree that we’re absolutely rubbish at making them stop

It seems like a win-win situation

Sadly, I’m not sure we have enough information to conclusively validate an argument for either case. It sure seems like a big coincidence that COVID-19 emerged in a city where people were studying coronaviruses. On the other hand, China is also a country where people eat a lot of weird animals. Until we can answer this question, I feel like we should cover our bases. How about people stop eating exotic animals — and drugging and overcrowding pigs, cows and chickens while they’re at it — and clamp down on leaky labs? Unless you really enjoy the taste of pangolin, or just can’t get enough of gain of function research, it seems like a win-win situation.

Were lockdowns necessary? Lockdowns, you will recall, were imposed to relieve stress on the healthcare system. They were intended to “slow the spread” (full disclosure: I supported the initial lockdowns, though not the later ones, on that basis). 

Yet nearby Sweden had more limited measures and its healthcare system survived. Granted, Sweden still had higher mortality rates than its neighbours — although Philippe Lemoine makes a compelling argument that this probably had more to do with timing than policy, inasmuch as the virus was seeded earlier. Granted, and which is more uncomfortable for COVID doves, Swedish strategy relied on voluntary social distancing rather than life as normal, and still demanded a lot of unpleasant decisions when it came to prioritising some patients over others. But if you had told a COVID hawk in April 2020 that Swedish mortality rates would end up being well into the bottom half of Europe’s, would they have believed you? I’m not sure I would have. Would you?

Did masking work? I don’t think that I agree with Oster that all mistakes can be dismissed as “complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty.” Sure, there was a lot we didn’t know in the earlier months of 2020. How lethal was the disease? How fast would the virus spread? Tough questions all. Few people have spotless records there. But I feel teeth-grindingly embarrassed that I thought ill-fitting, gossamer surgical masks could prevent the transmission of an extremely transmissible disease. Fundamentally, I thought they sounded like a good alternative to lockdowns and memed myself into believing in them. Smart people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb have defended their effectiveness, and it is certainly true that N95 masks have some protective effect, but in the future governments will have no excuse for lapsing back to mask mandates on the grounds of somethingmustbedoneism.

What evidence supported vaccine mandates? Across America and Europe — though (for once) to Boris Johnson’s credit, less so in the UK — thousands of people lost their jobs for being unvaccinated. People were excluded from bars, restaurants et cetera. Downright eliminationist rhetoric was rife. If vaccines prevented transmission there would be an argument for mandates. But they do not. Not even close. Was there ever good evidence for thinking that they would?

What is long COVID? Thousands of people believe themselves to be suffering from an ill-defined condition — essentially a category of conditions — known as long COVID. No doubt many are suffering. Post-viral fatigue syndrome has been studied for far longer than COVID-19 has existed. But to what extent, and in what sense, is long COVID biological, and to what extent is it psychosomatic? On the fervid fringe of COVID hawks are the researchers who think that COVID has such dire long-term effects that if forced to choose between contracting HIV and contracting COVID they would choose the former. Curiously, in Zero COVID China some people of influence appear to think that long COVID will chronically weaken the West to their advantage. Whether you think that has the eerie ring of truth, or is so crackers that it casts the very notion of the Chinese Century into doubt, it is a topic worth exploring closely and objectively.

It is good that post-pandemic societies look closer to the old normal than the “new normal”. People have gone back to work. Kids have returned to schools and universities. Pubs are closing for the traditional reasons of excessive bills and taxes rather than shutdowns. 

Still, we should not try to forget the past three years. Too many people have suffered too much for us to wash our hands of everything and get back to arguing about Ukraine and pronouns. Besides, we want to have learned something for the next time someone eats a bat in Wuhan or a researcher gets home and feels a cough coming on — or, indeed, to stop that happening.

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